On Characters Connecting With The Audience
It was February of 2001. I was watching Outlaw Star for the first time. Gene, the lead character, was struggling to perform a spacewalk to repair his ship; as he was experiencing traumatic flashbacks of his father’s murder (who was killed by space pirates during a spacewalk). Story-wise, I was lost, but the episode was interesting enough to hook me into the series. The episode ended and the ED starts to play. A single guitar chord rung out multiple times, followed by a woman’s vocals:
‘Oto no nai mahiru
Kaze ha tada akarui
Sukoshi nemutasou ni
Hanabira ga yureta
Nani ge nai kono omoi
Nee, hito ha donna kotoba de yondeiru no’
While I didn’t understand Japanese at the time, I was taken away by the sadness of not only the song itself but the sorrow in the singer’s voice. I didn’t need to understand Japanese to understand the pain of the woman singing. Fast forward to episode 21. After arguing with Gene, Melfina runs off to an empty, rocky landscape to clear her head and indulge in some short-term peace and quiet. As she stands on a short cliff overlooking the barren, rocky field, Melfina starts to sing:
‘I don’t know what words I can say
The wind has a way to talk to me
Flowers sleep, a silent lullaby
I pray for reply
Quiet days calm me
Someone please tell me
Oh what is it they say?
Maybe I will known one day’
Melfina was singing the first ED in English (although not a direct translation). With the song in English, non-Japanese speaking Western fans were given a personal insight into her character and pain. As an artificial creation (or bio-android), Melfina struggles with and questions her existence (as explored throughout her character arc). The normal people that she encountered will never understand how she feels. They will never relate to her pain and struggle.
Melfina will never have anyone that she can relate her sorrow.
Some of you reading this may experience this feeling of unrelatable sorrow. You may be going through some things that many will never experience — and therefore, they can’t connect with you. Let’s take African-Americans for example. We can never truly express our pain and suffering to other races; as they never experienced the trauma and hardships of being Black in America. Outside of race, let’s use people who struggle with mental health. People with mental health problems find it difficult to explain to those without any mental problems on how they feel. When they attempt to do so, they’re usually met with “Oh, it’s just all in your head” or “Well, at least you’re better off than others.”
As a story-telling medium, anime must convey realistic emotions with its characters that the viewers can connect with. Combining elements such as visual, music, sound, and plot, the artist can craft ways for the viewer to become invested in a character they find interesting. The artist must be clever enough to manipulate our emotional connection with a character subtlety. Art must speak to a person by using a direct link to make it feel real. The right buttons must be press. This is why some fans of Dragon Ball find themselves connecting with Son Gohan. They may find themselves as a fan of his character because they can relate to his studious, bookworm nature.
Let’s take this a step further. Chances are, if you’re a fan of the anime and manga series Watamote, you will find strong correlations with the socially awkward otaku Tomoko and her levels of anxiety and yourself. Tomoko, as much as she wants to be popular, can’t with her anxiety holding her back. While a simple task of ordering food at McDonald’s is easy for most of us, for some, interacting with a cashier is a brutal, painful challenge. It’s a draining task of combating your nerves and trying to stop yourself from overthinking (that the cashier is judging and mocking you). As you attempt to speak, your voice is low, quiet, and shacky. You’re looking down at your feet because the thought of making eye contact terrifies you.
The following thoughts flood your mind:
‘Is she judging me?’
‘I hope she won’t make fun of me.’
‘She probably thinks I’m too stupid to order food.
‘They’re going to make fun of me in the back.’(Spoilers: they do. Take it from somebody who worked in the food industry for years.)
You know that scene where Tomoko struggles to order food? I’m sure some of you can understand and relate Tomoko’s situation during that scene. It’s not a fun place to be in: interacting with others praying to God that they won’t judge and/or belittle you. Again, like with Melfina, Tomoko’s awkwardness and anxiety work with her character and you – the viewer – connecting with her because it’s rooted in realism.
In Bakemonogatari, lead heroine Hitagi Senjougahara is a self-described tsundere with severe trust issues. She closes herself off from most if not, all people (sans her father) due to her mom – whom she trusted – setting her up to be raped by members of the ult she was involved with. Her parents divorced soon after and because of it, Senjougahara feels that she’s a burden on their family. Following that, she ran into six con men who claimed they could solve her issue (her weightlessness and burden). She was ripped off by each man, furthering her mistrust in others. With these acts of betrayal and rip-offs, Hitagi does not open herself up to anyone: fearing that they will take advantage of her. It wouldn’t be until years later when, with the help of Ararargi (series’s main character) not taking advantage of her trust, she was able to trust and open herself to others.
In life, there are some who wall them self off from others – because of trust issues. It’s hard for them to open themselves to others. It can take people years for them to start trusting others again. Even if they do find someone to trust, they still have their guard up until they can feel like they can truly trust them. Hitagi’s oddity of the crab makes sense once you break things down. Crabs have hardened shells and sharp claws to defend themselves from predators. Crabs attack anyone who attempts to get near with claws. Remember: Hitagi did attack Araragi with a pair of staples (a symbolism of a crab’s claws) and was still defensive around him as she thought he would run his mouth about her oddity to others. She did warm up to him and lower her guard over time.
Anime is a storytelling medium. As such, it’s the job of the creators to give us the emotional connection to characters. Through clever crafting due to the creator, it’s possible for a fan to feel a direct connection with a character; especially if said character acts similar to that one person. If you spent your teen (or later) years feeling socially awkward and struggling with anxiety like Tomoko Kukori, chances are that you’re going to find that personal connection with her. That’s how art and character connection work – with realistic characteristics from said character.
Everyone, thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you like what I wrote, please give me a link, leave a comment, and feel free to share. Tell me, which characters have you connected with and what, to you, makes a character relatable.